Tonight we're going to be dealing with something a little different. Rather than turning back the clock to when we were teenagers or when we were kids, we're going to turn the clock all the way back to when we weren't anything at all.
See, it's a common fallacy of people to only really regard the things that have happened in your lifetime as important and not to factor in things that went on before. Wrestling is no different. If you think back to the days before Hulkamania it probably seems like sort of a big empty period of random title changes and aimless matches, but there were storylines even back in those barbaric times when nobody had started wearing codpieces yet.
So today we'll be celebrating the five best storylines that took place before we were born (using 1985, when I was born, as a frame of reference). Maybe we'll learn something that will give us all new respect for the old timers who paved the way for the wrestling we enjoy today, and if not, we can at least all look at how weird people looked back in the day.
Quick, what was the biggest-drawing match in American wrestling history up until the wrestling boom of the 1980s?
Give up? It was Buddy Rogers vs. Pat O' Connor in what was billed as "The Match of the Century" for the NWA Championship in 1961. This match drew a completely ridiculous 38,622 to Comiskey Park in Chicago to the tune of $148,000 in ticket sales. Adjusted for inflation, that would be roughly 800 quintillion bajillion dollars in today's money. So how did they do it? Simple. They just put on wrestling's first true dream match.
See, back around this time in wrestling history, there were a number of people who were hugely significant, but whose names don't get billing in the history books next to the likes of Lou Thesz. Pat O' Connor and, though he gets much more credit, Nature Boy Buddy Rogers are two such men, and that's a shame, because they were unbelievable at their jobs.
O'Connor was a New Zealander who was one of the most beloved wrestlers in history at the time and whose drawing power, (he regularly drew 30,000 people to see his big matches,) was hugely responsible for the various promotions in the NWA beginning to regularly trade talent, as everyone wanted O'Connor in their territory. Whereas Nature Boy Buddy Rogers was pioneering a style of heel wrestling that would define what a bad guy in wrestling is to this very day.
They were they most loved and hated men in the industry at the time, and when they clashed in Chicago for the championship it was perhaps the most significant wrestling match to take place until the advent of Wrestlemania.
Rogers won the title in dastardly fashion and both men would go on to great success afterwards, but together they created a bookmark in the annals of wrestling history and set the tone for so, so many things to come.
Wrestling is good for a lot of things. It's good entertainment, it brings families together with a shared interest, and it can capture the imagination of a nation at its heights. But could professional wrestling actually give a nation back its pride?
Well, once upon a time it did.
See, the 1950s weren't exactly a great time in the history of Japan. They were just a few years removed from being the only nation ever to be atomized and from losing not only the biggest war ever fought, but also their belief in their emperor's attachment to God himself. As a country they were rudderless and completely under the thumb of the Americans they had been fighting as a nation to defeat barely a decade before. But from this country wide depression, came one man who the country would rally behind in a way that has never happened before and may never happen again. That man's name was Rikidozan, and he is the father of Japanese wrestling.
So how does a wrestler become the pride of a nation? Simple. You pit him against dastardly foreign heels and have him always win. It may sound simple, but it was the perfect cure for what ailed Japan as intimidating monster after intimidating monster fell to the karate chop of their hero. Now, in case you think I'm blowing smoke about how much this affected the country as a whole, allow me to refer to Rikidozan's televised matches at the dawn of television in Japan.
Two of his matches rank among the top ten most-seen shows in Japanese television history. First his one hour draw against NWA champion Lou Thesz in 1957 that 81 percent of all television owners in Japan watched, then his match against his biggest rival The Destroyer drew 61 percent. This may seem like less, until you realize that, thanks heavily in part to Rikidozan himself, since the match against Thesz millions more televisions had been sold. To this day, Rikidozan's match with The Destroyer is the most-viewed program of any kind ever to air on Japanese television.
But this isn't just a tribute to Rikidozan himself. It was the feud and the hero that captured the heart of a nation. This is an example of a patriotism gimmick and story that not only worked, but worked better than perhaps anything else ever had. The saddest thing is that we'll never truly know how much further it could have gone, as Rikidozan was murdered in 1963 at the peak of his fame, leaving us only the very concept of Puroresu and his students Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba to shoulder his unbelievable legacy.
If you've watched wrestling for any length of time it's likely that you have a favorite pair of guys to see wrestle each other. Whatever the reason you love seeing them wrestle, it's guaranteed that you couldn't put 50 American wrestling fans in the same room and get even one duplicate answer. There are so many feuds to choose from, so many wrestlers, and so many years of history. How could a whole country choose one pairing above all others?
I think you can see where this is going.
First of all, for you to understand the significance of this feud, you need to understand the significance of El Santo. "The Saint" was not just a professional wrestler in his home country of Mexico, he was a folk hero and an icon. There is simply no frame of reference in American wrestling for how significant the man became, not only to Mexican pop culture, but to its culture in general. He was such a hero to the common people of Mexico in the 20th century that statues to him litter the country. Yeah, it was that big. You don't see any statues of Hulk Hogan in Washington D.C. do you?
Blue Demon and El Santo first met in 1952 as Santo found himself in a feud against the rudo (heel) tag team of Los Hermanos Shadow. When El Santo bested the team and unmasked Black Shadow; Shadow's partner, Blue Demon, decided to turn tecnico (babyface) and join El Santo in his quest for justice.
Blue Demon never accepted that El Santo was a bigger star or a better wrestler and the two engaged in a series of matches that began as friendly, but became more and more heated until Demon finally won a decisive victory over Santo that would define him as the only man able to best Santo on his level and made their names synonymous in Mexico from that day forward.
Between their numerous partnerships and feuds, these two would continue this feud all the way until El Santo's retirement and death in the early 80s. And while few people now may remember specific moments of wrestling feuds that happened back before their parents were even alive, in Mexico you would be hard pressed to find a person even to this day who couldn't tell you about The Saint and The Demon.
There are some stories in wrestling that just resonate with people, no matter how often they're repeated. Perhaps the greatest of these is the beloved mentor vs. the bitter pupil, and if you're talking about that template, then you have to be talking first and foremost about the saga of Bruno Sammartino and Larry Zbyszko.
Larry Whistler was a young man who wanted to break into the wrestling business at the beginning of the 70s. He managed to convince perhaps the biggest star in wrestling at the time, Bruno Sammartino, to train him and started off on a successful career. For most wrestlers, this would have been fine, but then, not many wrestlers lived in the shadow of Bruno Sammartino. From the start of his career, Zbyszko was seen as Sammartino's protege and was under immediate and constant pressure to live up to his mentor's legacy. Some may have thrived under this pressure, but little by little Larry Zbyzsko started to crack.
It finally all came to a head in late 1979 when Zbyszko challenged his mentor to a simple exhibition match so that he could step out of the shadow of Bruno once and for all. When Bruno refused to wrestle his pupil, Zbysko went so far as to threaten to retire outright if Sammartino did not agree to this match. Finally, not wanting to see his pupil's career cut short over this, Bruno agreed.
On January 22nd, 1980, at the cusp of a new decade, the mentor met the protege. From the beginning, Bruno dominated the less experienced and less skilled Zbyszko, frustrating him. Finally, after Bruno countered Larry and sent him flying out of the ring, an enraged Zbyszko grabbed a wooden chair and annihilated Sammartino with it, leaving his mentor in a pool of blood at his feet as he smiled down at him. It was perhaps the most sophisticated heel turn that had ever taken place in wrestling to that point, and fans responded immediately.
Over the months to come, Zbyszko was stabbed, clubbed and had taxis he was riding in literally tipped over on their side as a legion of betrayed Bruno fans made him one of the most reviled men in wrestling history. With a new bag of tricks and a desperation to prove himself, Zbysko continued to challenge and fight Sammartino all through the year, and even christened himself "The New Living Legend" as a gibe at Sammartino's own nickname of"The Living Legend".
As the crowd's got bigger and the thirst for his blood grew hotter, it became clear that a serious showdown was necessary. Appropriately, the two men decided to settle things in a steel cage at Shea Stadium. A whopping 36,295 people packed the stands at Shea to watch Bruno finally put down his upstart student once and for all to end one of the great feuds in wrestling history.
After the match, Zbyszko left WWE and feuded with Bruno's son David, before catching on with the NWA in 1981. Forever more after that, Larry Legend would proclaim that he retired Sammartino, and would go on to a great career of being hated all over the world. Ultimately, though, despite all he did after it, his career would forever be tied up with this revolutionary storyline and the unbelievable amount of heat it inspired. Even today there are people in Pennsylvania who would gladly do time to get their hands on Larry Zbyszko. And that is perhaps the greatest compliment of all.
Hey, who said it had to be predetermined to be professional wrestling?
If you've listened to enough old timers talk about wrestling, there are a few names that are bound to come up. Lou Thesz, Bruno Sammartino, Gorgeous George, etc. But of all the names you'll hear, two belong to men who created the entire concept of professional wrestling. They are Frank Gotch and George Hackenschmidt, and they had a feud so good, that you couldn't have faked it any better.
Let's go back to the turn of the century. See, Hackenschmidt had been a professional wrestler, (a real one,) for years in Europe, and had gained a reputation for being virtually unbeatable. Actually, he wasn't just unbeatable, nobody could even last half an hour with the guy. He wrecked any opposition that came his way for years with his monstrous strength and quickness, and knew no real rival of any sort until a trip to America brought him in contact with a Midwestern farm boy named Frank Gotch.
Right from the start things got catty. Gotch, a perpetually underestimated man, had finally won the American Heavyweight Championship from a man named Tom Jenkins, but when Gotch challenged Hackenschmidt, George faced Jenkins instead, beat him, and then head back to England without ever responding to Gotch's challenge.
A full 3 years later, Gotch finally got his match, but Hackenschmidt was so overconfident that he barely bothered to train for it, saying publicly that no American could ever defeat him. Big mistake. Gotch shocked Hackenschmidt, and the world, by not only going toe to toe with perhaps the greatest wrestler to ever live, but by bullying him around and taking the first fall, (all wrestling matches were two out of three falls at the time.) Then, after shaking Gotch's hand, Hackenschmidt left and refused to wrestle the second or third falls. So Gotch had done the impossible and beaten the Russian Lion for the World Championship. The two men had shaken hands and all was over, right?
Nope. Big George wasn't done. In fact, the second he was out of Gotch's sight, he immediately began to say loudly to anyone who would listen that Frank Gotch was a cheating cheaterface and wasn't the champion of a grilled cheese sandwich, much less the world. Naturally, Gotch was plenty annoyed when he heard that the guy who had shaken his hand was calling him a raging pantywaist behind his back.
So the build began for a rematch of epic proportions. Hack got himself a hype man named Curley and started to hype himself as the true World Champion, while Gotch trained in the countryside against 4 and 5 opponents a session like something out of Rocky. Hearing about this made Hackenschmidt freak out, which brings us to an exhibition match that Hack wrestled a mere 3 days before the big fight where he appeared to sustain a knee injury. And I say "appeared" because there is no evidence that this injury ever took place except for the word of Hack and his manager Curly.
So when Gotch beat Hack fair and square 3 days later to retain his title, guess what happened? CONTROVERSY TIME. All hell broke loose as accusations of Gotch fixing the fight, or a serious Hack injury or even that the two had agreed on the outcome together began cropping up everywhere. Even to this day, it isn't known what really went down or how. But it laid the groundwork for all of the genuinely fixed matches and feuds that would springboard off of it all around the nation. Without Hack being a huge jerk, there might be no wrestling today as we know it, and babyfaces worldwide still struggle to live up to the Gotch standard.
I hope you enjoyed this list of the best feuds from when you were just a twinkle in the mailman's eye, (sorry to break the news to you like this.) Hopefully, if nothing else, it will remind you to give thanks to those who paved the way for what we have today and who did revolutionary things that still echo through the years.
So go shake a legend's hand, slip him a $20 and tell him we sent you. Because boy do they have some stories to tell.
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